Toward a Global Human History: Agency and the Explanation of Long-Term Change

Advanced Seminar

September 26–October 2, 2009

Toward a Global Human HistoryToward a Global Human HistoryAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Timothy R. Pauketat, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois and John E. Robb, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge UniversityToward a Global Human HistoryAdvanced Seminar Co-chaired by Timothy R. Pauketat, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois and John E. Robb, Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University

Why do there appear to have been long periods of little change early in human archaeological history? Can we square such explanations with those we use to explain, say, the state? Explaining long-term and large-scale cultural change remains one of archaeology’s central missions, yet it has been dogged by weak case studies and theoretical controversies rooted in the discipline’s “theory wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. “The goal of this advanced seminar was to transcend the lingering controversies and to rethink how we might construct an archaeology that addresses the big-picture problems suited to archaeology and relevant to the world today,” said co-chairs John E. Robb and Timothy R. Pauketat. In order to do this, they convened 10 top scholars from around the world who specialized in a broad range of studies, from human biological evolution in Africa to questions of conceptions of the body in ancient Europe and issues in the culture and ecology of the modern-day Amazon.

“Over the course of the seminar, it became clear that we first need to overcome the ways in which we dichotomize subjects and objects, often placing humans outside history, variously trapped in it or constructed by it,” said the co-chairs. They attacked the dichotomy by thinking through relations between humans (or the construction of persons through social relations), relations between humans and material things (or materiality), and relations between humans and space-time (landscape and temporality theory). Their question became: What would a long-term history that includes all these aspects look like?

A particularly important conclusion of the seminar is that practitioners of a reinvigorated archaeology of the long term and large scale must understand history to be more than just “one damn thing after another.” The co-chairs said, “Over the course of our seminar, we differentiated history—a series of lived events and narrative constructions—from historical ontology, or long-standing sets of terms and configurations of things in space which give experience its characteristic life-world quality and which give regional cultures their regionality.” Thus, rather than seeing preexisting, elemental individuals entering into social contracts, the seminar participants traced the development of particular ways of constructing persons relationally and considered how fields of relationships constitute specific agents.

This brought the seminar to a consideration of causation in human history. “In the bigger picture, all participants recognized that we have to move from a model of simple causation … to more complex models of contingency in which our distinctions between historical actors and entities become inseparable from historical processes that archaeologists try to explain. An entity at one scale becomes a process at another scale,” said Robb. For instance, an oak tree is a fixed habitat for a squirrel, on the one hand, and a dynamic unit in forest succession, on the other. In the same way, a “tradition” or an “institution” is an entity that provides fixed reference points and parameters for people acting within it, from one point of view, but an evolving set of relations, from another. Causation is usually a problem posed by entities (first we reify something and then we wonder how it came into being), but if the entities can be seen as processes, then causation becomes a relational question. Another way to put this is that looking at entities poses “why” problems (“Why are there organizations where there weren’t any before?”), whereas looking at processes poses “how” problems (“How did the entities involved in the dynamic relations usually termed ‘the state’ act in the period in which the sequence of change took place?”).

For an archaeology of long-term and large-scale change, this means that scholars need to look at these dynamic processes for other kinds of units besides people. “This is as true of Robert Layton’s and Clive Gamble’s considerations of the multidimensional fields and spans wherein early human experience and evolution occurred as it is of more recent histories and historical ontologies,” wrote the co-chairs, citing the seminar participants’ work: Scott MacEachern’s African frontiers, Steve Lansing’s Balinese temple networks, Susan Pollock’s alternative experiences of Mesopotamian states, Mike Heckenberger’s Amazonian bodies and places, Ken Sassaman’s ancient American coastal epochs, Ruth Van Dyke’s reimagining of Chaco Canyon, Tim Pauketat’s Native North American bundling practices, and John Robb’s Mesolithic-Neolithic bodily constructions.

“Through our case studies, we are making an epistemological shift in archaeology, from explanation to interpretation and from evolution to history, and from one unique narrative to multiple narratives contingent on our different ‘research frames’ and our rearticulated vocabulary of ontologies, networks, emergent dynamics, fractality, fields of action, relationalities, and bundles,” said the co-chairs.

Timothy R. Pauketat, Chair Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois
John Robb, Chair Senior Lecturer, Department of Archaeology, Cambridge University
Clive Gamble Professor, Geography Department, Royal Holloway University of London Time, Change and the Palaeolithic Imagination
Michael Heckenberger Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Fractal Bodies, Historical Prisms: Scale, Perspective and Voice in Amazonian Deep History
J. Stephen Lansing Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona Anthropology and History: Topologies of the Possible
Robert Layton Professor, Department of Anthropology, Durham University Co-Evolution and the Emergence of Modern Hunter-Gatherer Society
Scott MacEachern Professor, Department of Anthropology, Bowdoin College Time on the Timeless Continent: History and Archaeological Chronologies in the Southern Lake Chad Basin
Susan Pollock Professor, Department of Anthropology, Binghamton University Subjects, States, and Public Spheres in Ancient Mesopotamia
Kenneth E. Sassman Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Florida Drowning Out the Past: How Humans Historicize Water as Water Historicizes Them
Ruth M. Van Dyke Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Colorado College Ritual, Scale, and Time in the Pueblo World: Chaco and the Katsina Cult

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